Fish Out of Water

Thomas Lansing is building a business that is sustainable in more ways than one

You might say that fish fertilizer is in Thomas Lansing’s blood.

The son of an environmental activist and a commercial fisherman, Thomas spent much of his childhood exploring Idaho’s great outdoors. As an adult (and founder of Carp Solutions), he’s trying to keep it that way as he builds a career.

“My parents moved here in the ‘70s to be canoe guides,” Thomas explains. “I pretty much grew up on the river. I was rafting in a papoose. I’ve been connected with Idaho rivers and outdoors my whole life. As I became an adult, falling back into that world made a lot of sense.”

He began by working alongside his dad on commercial fishing trips to Alaska.

“He was into fishing and I was into paying for college. We both liked it a lot,” Thomas says. But both also hoped to find steady work a little closer to home.

Around this time, Idaho Fish and Game had been considering an initiative to put a bounty on carp, an invasive species of bottom-feeding freshwater fish wreaking havoc on Idaho’s native fish population. Carp, according to Thomas, are prolific breeders who stir up the muddy bottoms of lakes, changing the water temperature and setting off a chain reaction of squeezing out native insects, fish, and even birds.

Because of carp, once thriving freshwater lakes — like Lake Lowell in Nampa — transform from clear and healthy to brown and smelly.

While the Idaho Fish and Game (IFG) didn’t get the funding it needed from the legislature for their carp bounty initiative, Thomas proceeded with fishing carp in the hope that someone — if not IFG, maybe the pet or fish food industries — would pay them for their work.

Carpe Carpum founder Thomas Lansing

“We wanted to make a market to fish commercially in Idaho,” Thomas says. “We were going to have two business: we were going to catch fish and we were going to sell them.”

Because carp are invasive, getting the go-ahead to fish them was easy. But, as it turned out, selling them was not.

“Fish and Game never ended up paying us and nobody wanted to buy them. We quickly realized that we could catch way more carp than we could sell,” he explains.

“I was calling around to hatcheries and pet food makers, but there was no market. That’s when I began thinking fertilizer is really what we ought to do.”

And Carpe Carpum, Thomas’ carp-based fertilizer, was born.

Carpe Carpum fertilizer

“It started in the garage,” he says. “The first iteration was like the bassomatic [on Saturday Night Live] where Dan Aykroyd blends a bass. We had a lot to learn.“

Learn he did. First by following decades-old instruction for creating fish fertilizer, then ultimately just by trial and error. He bootstrapped the entire operation, repurposing old sewage equipment into a carp-to-fertilizer processing plant.

“Anyone can do it, and I strongly encourage them to try,” Thomas says.

“We macerate the fish and there’s a lot of mixing. It’s a lot like a brewery. There’s a flurry of activity and then you wait for certain biological processes to do their part. It’s something most people don’t want to do.”

The result is a rich, organic liquid fertilizer concentrate. Thomas initially sold Carpe Carpum directly to those interested in sustainable gardening and farming practices.

“In the beginning, I just started talking to people in the North End,” Thomas explains. A lot of gardeners are interested in getting nitrogen on their plants, but they want to know where it came from and that it didn’t get flown halfway around the world.”

North End garden

Eventually Thomas began selling through local stores (“I just walked into all the retailers in town.”) Several, including North End Organic Nursery, Edward’s Greenhouse, 36th Street Garden Centers and the Boise Co-Op were all receptive.

Carpe Carpum then began selling through Idaho’s Bounty, a distribution co-op, which introduced the product to a whole new audience.

“They know all the farmers,” Thomas says. “We ended up connecting with farmers. The farmers really understand their soils. They know I can’t produce a gallon of fertilizer as cheaply Scott’s Miracle Grow, but they know it’s better.”

Carpe Carpum continued to grow, selling steadily to an expanding list of customers. Then Sunset Magazine ran a small blurb on the company. His website traffic blew up. Within a matter of weeks, all of Carpe Carpum’s one gallon stock sold out.

While the company is meeting its initial goals, Thomas is clear that carp fishing in Idaho and Carpe Carpum have a long way to go.

Take Lake Lowell, for instance. Though Thomas’ commercial fishing of carp in the lake has slowed their take over, the population continues to grow.

“Commercial fishing is the only sustainable way to knock them down to where native fish and wildlife rebound,” Thomas says, explaining that he would need to pull about 4,000,000 pounds of carp from the lake to have that impact.

“That’s an achievable number. If people buy enough fertilizer, I guarantee I’ll clean up Lake Lowell.”

Boise North End sunflower

Photography by Mike Kerby. Thanks Mike!